Let’s Talk About Briefs, Baby

Ava Palmquist
Account Manager at Ambient

Project Briefs.

In theory, they seem so simple:

You’re going to start a project, right? Cool.

You’ve done a Discovery Workshop of some sort with the client to give the project direction? Nice.

Ok, now summarize the information into a brief so the client and everyone on your team is clear on where this creative journey is headed. Tada!

If only it was so easy.

At Ambient we’ve always put together briefs for every project. Sometimes, we call them Project Briefs, sometimes Creative Briefs, once in a while just a lazy hipster “Brief.” Unfortunately, often, none of the above were actually brief. With each project they grew longer, reiterating the same points in different verbiage. A bunch of paragraphs here. A ton of bullet points there. A lengthy snoozefest that was sadly read precisely one time at project kickoff, and here forth disregarded forever and evermore.

Over the past several months, we’ve been digging into our processes and in extension, trying to figure out just how much information is required on a successful Project Brief. We’re still refining our system, but here is a snapshot of what we’ve implemented that has set us up for better, much more effective use of this necessary evil:

Without discovery, you’re walking uphill. In the snow. Both ways.

We discussed the importance of Discovery Workshops in our last blog. In a nutshell, writing a brief without having done proper discovery, is like taking your team on a road trip without a map. Or the map app on your iPhone. Many times, we treat projects like road trips with frat buddies. Hey, let’s just grab a six-pack, start driving and see if we’ll end up somewhere with hot chicks!

The problem with this narrative is that agency projects, commissioned by real life paying clients are NOT spontaneous road trips. They require advance research, with an itinerary, and a definite and identifiable destination. Even when the illusive “you have a blank slate” projects come along, they are not a cart blanche to do whatever we please.

(PS. Blank Slate clients are just clients who know what they DON’T want. They require the most discovery of all, otherwise their projects enter the hamster wheel of exhaustion and dissatisfaction.)

One shade of grey will do. It’s a brief not a romance novel.

Regardless of your role at your agency, you are probably a busy person. No one wants to be handed a 12-page brief. Chances are during discovery with the client, general themes emerged. What are those themes? What is flexible? What is non-negotiable? We summarize them into a few sentences. There is a pervasive tendency to legitimize our daily existence by making everything fancy and taking twice as long as necessary to do what is required.

Around here, we regularly reference this quote by Gretchen Rubin:

One of the worst ways to use your time, is to do something well that you didn’t need to do at all.

Keep it simple. At Ambient, we pared back and narrowed our Project Briefs down to the following components:

  1. Purpose. What does success looks like?
    All clients have an idea of what they consider a “successful” project. We help them articulate it, then write it down.
  2. Audience. Who are we trying to reach?
    We are helping our client reach somebody. Maybe it’s the same people as before, but in a better way. Maybe it’s new people. You better believe there is an audience, and we figure out who that is, ASAP.
  3. Execution. What we are going to do.
    Also, what we are not going to do. We are building a website. We are creating a new brand identity. We are putting together a strategic marketing plan. Whatever it is, we are going to take specific steps. What are those steps? We list them.
    Execution is letting the client and your team know where this journey is heading, in clear, unflowery language. Execution is also when your head gets cut off because you didn’t do what you were supposed to. We prefer the former.
  4. Required inclusions. Non-negotiables.
    What specific words or verbiage have to be used in the final product? Who is in charge of giving approval on the client’s team? How much does the client hate the combo of orange and blue? We use this section to communicate things that everyone should keep in mind when working on their potion of the project.
  5. Timeline. Oy vei.
    Internally, we call this the “accountability calendar” because once it’s in writing and signatures have dried, it’s a lot harder to casually blow off deadlines. We meet with our team, establish an appropriate project timeline, and list the specific dates for milestone deliverables. This is the total worst because now we pretty much have to keep deadlines. But it’s also totally awesome because when we meet those deadlines, we can make ourselves a drink and swagger around LIKE A BOSS.

The client needs to sign off. In blood better, but ink will do.

Clients are lovely people. They have lovely money they are paying you, instead of someone else. They also have lovely intentions. The very act of signing one’s name on a piece of paper creates a sweet memory: I approved the direction for this project 4 months ago! #ifyouknowwhatimean

Plan on talking to people. The client. The team. All the time.

No matter what information is on the Project Brief, interaction with people will have to take place. If you’re an Account Manager or Project Manager (or any position that requires assembling Project Briefs), you should already own the skill set societally identified as “communication skills.” (No? Click here.)

We have a kickoff with our team. The Project Brief is like a meeting agenda — everyone on the team summarizes their role, in their own words: I’m the content strategist and will be creating new content for each page of the website, using language suited to the brand identity and the audience. Having people say what they are going to do makes it more likely that they’ll do it. Then there’s follow-up with everyone, regularly. The Project Brief is a tool, not a person.

That’s it. How do you do Project Briefs? Think you’re better than us? Share your knowledge. We choose progress over ego every time. hello@weareambient.com

Originally published at weareambient.com on January 26, 2016.